I regret to inform you that this is a true story.
To make a long story very short, several years ago I was in a position where I needed to help with a local church’s Vacation Bible School in order to payback a favor. This was a dying church with poor leadership, and the sparsely attended outreach event was a pageant displaying their waning influence in a community they once thrived in back in the 1950s.
I was standing in the church foyer getting ready to welcome the few kids who would come, when the pastor’s wife burst through the front door, huffing. She made her way to her husband with the righteous indignation of an angry cat.
“Ruthie stole my parking spot!”
I thought I heard the words coming from her mouth correctly, but thought I surely must be mistaken.
“What?” the pastor responded.
Okay, she really said that. No going back now.
The pastor went on to explain that surely Ruthie (another old lady in the church) didn’t mean to steal her parking spot, and that he was sure she was able to find another one close by (there were maybe 6 cars in the parking lot that held about 60).
It didn’t help.
Why must I tell you this ridiculous and depressing story, you ask? Because the South is full of churches who boomed with gospel ministry decades ago who now have many problems, but a lack of open parking spaces isn’t one of them.
And this is not because “they just didn’t keep up with the times.” It’s not because they were on the wrong side of a worship war. It may have many causes–but first and foremost it’s because they lost sight of the gospel and what it means to be the church.
A pastor’s wife getting upset about an elderly lady taking her parking spot is an extreme example, I know. But it serves as a prime example of the self-righteousness and petulance that have come to stereotype the Bible Belt.
Of course, a stereotype is a stereotype. There are untold scores of genuine, kind, reasonable, Jesus-loving Christians spread throughout the Bible Belt who would never lay claim to a personal parking spot. They watch more than Fox News and are not angry or backwardly prudish. They are humble, pleasant to be around and a joy to find as a neighbor. I know many of these people.
But–a stereotype is a stereotype. There is a reason they exist. Unfortunately there are too many gossiping, hateful, snide people who bear the name of Christ strewn throughout this region. Some of them are probably Christians who are just caught in a whirlwind of ugly, and some of them wouldn’t know the gospel of Jesus if it was sitting on their forehead but are convinced otherwise.
When I think about this church, I get especially sad remembering their old photos of pews being packed, people walking to church from their neighborhood, smiling faces gathered outside on the steps.
Not long ago, I drove back by this particular church, and they had a heavy, padlocked chain securing the front door. I can’t help but think about Jesus blowing out lampstands in Revelation 2. The empty hiss after a candle goes out is a terrifying, humbling sound.
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
I long for a day when church doors won’t get padlocked–when “Bible Belt” would be used as a positive description and not a derogatory moniker peddled by people who think all Christians are Pharisees. That day is not here yet, because we have many neighbors who frequent church pews (or nice, padded chairs) but are profoundly confused about Jesus.
To move beyond this stereotype, a return to the gospel of grace is our only hope. A recognition, like that pastor’s wife hopefully came to eventually, that you have altogether missed the point.
Let us all be open to any ways in which we may have missed the point, lest our flame be snuffed out–lest Jesus say those terrifying words to us: “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
And in the meantime, don’t claim a parking spot please.